She grew up Terri Sue in Scarsdale, N.Y. But when she fell in love in college, her boyfriend asked her: "What kind of a name is Terri Sue for a dynamic girl like you?" So she took her Hebrew name, Tovah. And actress Tovah Feldshuh was born.
Feldshuh, star of stage, film and television, comes to the Bay Area next weekend for two events at the Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael. On Saturday, Nov. 18 she will sing the songs of Brad Ross at the ASCAP presentation of new songwriters; on Sunday, Nov. 19 she will perform her one-woman show, "Tovah Crossovah: From Broadway to Cabaret." In the show, Feldshuh sings standards by Berlin, Gershwin, and Rodgers and Hart, and plays several characters — real and fictional — ranging in age from 8 to 80.
Reached in Texas where her tour began last week, Feldshuh said she eschews autobiography in her show. But there's "plenty of Jewish stuff in it." Rather than telling stories about herself, she creates character portraits that "dip down into the river of common experience."
One character she plays is a man she termed "an old rebbe." Another is a little boy coming to his first lesson in Torah. The 8-year-old is Molly Kelly Kugelberg, a little Jewish Irish girl, and the 80-year-old is her grandmother Ada from the Bronx.
During the musical portion of the show, Feldshuh tracks the derivation of some Gershwin melodies that, she noted, "seemed to come out of the Jewish pale." Feldshuh gave credit to musicologist Jack Gottlieb for researching the Russian lullaby origin of such Gershwin standards as "My One and Only" and "It Ain't Necessarily So."
Feldshuh grew up listening to that music in a Conservative Jewish home where, she said, "we lit candles on Friday night and played ball on Saturdays."
Her Hebrew name means "good," as in mazel tov or Shanah Tovah. The name was certainly good luck for her — it was instrumental in launching her career.
She began acting on Broadway in the early 1970s with a small part in "Cyrano de Bergerac" with Christopher Plummer. Then after it closed, Feldshuh got an important part in a play about the Dreyfus Affair when the Jewish director, Garson Kanin, saw her name on an audition list. "Let's get this kid in the play," she recalled him saying, and he cast her without an audition.
Before Barbra Streisand brought Isaac Bashevis Singer's character Yentl to the screen, Feldshuh won a Tony for playing the part on Broadway in a non-musical version of the story favored by the Nobel Prize-winning writer. Feldshuh said Singer was very involved in the rehearsals of the production, and the two of them became good friends.
"He used to say, `Toivah' — that's how he pronounced it, `Toivah' — `Toivah,' he'd say, `After the opening we'll go out, we'll talk like old friends. I'll be the old, you'll be the friend.' We spent a lot of time together, and once even got stuck in an elevator in his building."
Feldshuh said Devorah Menashe, the author married to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, is writing a play for Feldshuh about her experiences with Singer.
Regarding the musical film version of "Yentl," Feldshuh said Singer hated it. "But I defended Barbra," said Feldshuh. "I said to him, `She's immortalizing your story for the world.'"
In addition to "Yentl," Feldshuh has performed in many other Jewish-themed projects, including Marsha Norman's play "Sarah and Abraham" last summer, and Clifford Odets' "Awake and Sing" last year, playing the tyrannical matriarch Bessie Berger. She also portrayed a Czechoslovakian freedom fighter in "Holocaust."
"I loved it," Feldshuh said about her role in that miniseries. "I got to fight the Nazis. It was a profound experience. We had no idea it would become as big as it was."
Filming occurred in Vienna in 1977 during a time of resurgent anti-Semitism, which Feldshuh suspected made its way into the Viennese film lab. "The first three days of filming were ruined at the lab," she said. "We thought it was sabotage."
Commenting on the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, which took place the day before the interview, she called it "one of the low points in our entire history."
For her performance in Houston that night, she added the song "Ani Ma'amin," the song that was sung by Jews on their way to the concentration camps. She also stepped out of character during the show and talked about peace and her hope it will go forward despite Rabin's death.
"We'd all better cross our fingers for the peace process," she said, and quoted Emlyn Williams: "For a branch to bear fruit, it must be able to bend."